Visual Art

A Party Amidst a Pandemic

Mark Mulhern’s lovely show at Tory Folliard Gallery will cheer you up. Is that so bad?

By - Oct 27th, 2020 05:31 pm
Mark Mulhern. Photo courtesy of Tory Folliard Gallery.

Mark Mulhern. Photo courtesy of Tory Folliard Gallery.

People, gestures and space are celebrated and explored through observation, color, and line at an exhibition of 35 works by Mark Mulhern, entitled “Gatherings,” and now at Tory Folliard Gallery. The Milwaukee-based artist, who has spent considerable time in France over the years, has had career that spans more than 50 years.

Upon entering the exhibit you are greeted by a series of vibrant and complex scenes of social gatherings; it feels as though you’ve wandered into a party to which you were not invited, but no one is asking you to leave. A kind of homage to people watching, most of the pictures are flooded with figures, color and pattern elements which repeat themselves through many of the compositions, allowing for smooth transitions from one to the next. There are paintings, drawings, monotypes, and sketches, but none feel out of place; it is easy to forget that mediums even exist because there is so much information to process. As I spent more time with each piece, one by one, I was struck by the tenacity for experimentation and abundant joy in these itchy, scratchy, layered paintings and the loopy line faces mixed amongst blocky, but descriptive figures draped in patterned clothing. Each work drew me in and turned out different than expected upon further inspection.

In the painting “Gathering,” the full range of Mulhern’s technique is on display: Familiar sweets and bottles of wine on a table in the foreground; figures intermingling amongst one another and amongst layers of the picture plane; and trees covered with small lights scattered into the distance of the painting. It’s lovely, but upon further inspection questions arise: are there children in the distance, or just figures sized down in accordance with the painting’s perspective? There are a woman’s legs that seem too large to be placed so far into the distance, impossible for a properly sized person; and blobs that vanish into the distance that read as people and become more monochromatic as the eye follows them into the upper right hand corner. Many classical techniques that allow a two dimensional representation of the human experience to be convincing are on display, yet there are some elements that do not fit into that neat formula of how to convince an onlooker they are viewing into the distance. Like Edouard Manet’s “Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe,” things appear normal and then there is a figure that challenges our ideas of linear perspective.

In other paintings the guests at these plush soirees seem as though they are not even in our moment in history, wearing gowns and petticoats that look Victorian, so not only is the perspective non-linear, but so is time. In the mixed-media piece “Party In Full Swing” the clothing is all over the place with pattern and styles that seem to be from different eras in fashion. To accompany these clashing yet cohesive garments there is an interesting mix of styles of representation, figures and objects similar to those in other works, where they are slightly blocked in and some made up of pattern, but now with the addition of representation through line — line work that is reminiscent of Matisse to relay the visual information of bottles, tables, chairs and people. It’s an intimidating prospect to try and fit all of this into one composition, but through years of practice, sketching, and honing his style Mulhern can pull it off.

The new way in which we view such gatherings and parties, amid a pandemic when we can no longer safely partake in them, makes this show even more interesting. The work on its own would be excellent, but because of the lack of in-person connection we all now suffer through, it speaks much louder and with more poignancy to me. The work is beautiful, but with an undercurrent of melancholy, and this feeling is only amplified by our collective predicament. I highly recommend the show, the work is unique and offers an oddly festive escape from current events.

“Gatherings” Gallery

Gatherings” is open for in person viewing until November 28 at Tory Folliard Gallery located at 233 N. Milwaukee St. 

Social distancing required.

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